* Military could launch cheaper GPS satellite
* Leasing communications satellites another option
* General cites continued issues with Lockheed satellites
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Jan 17 The U.S. Air Force is moving
ahead with plans to change its approach to national security
satellites, including greater use of government sensors on
commercial satellites and possible launches of cheaper,
less-complex satellites for other missions, a top Air Force
general said on Thursday.
General William Shelton, who heads Air Force Space Command,
told reporters that he expected to issue an open-ended,
multiyear contract in 2013 that would allow the government to
use more "hosted payloads" in which government sensors are
launched aboard commercial satellites.
He said the contract would be valued at under $500 million.
The Air Force was also looking at launching an additional
navigational satellite as part of its Global Positioning System
that would save money by dropping the sensor used on existing
satellites to detect nuclear detonations, he said.
The new satellite would be used to address the lack of
coverage in urban areas and mountainous terrain such as in
Afghanistan, he said.
Other ideas included expanding communications needs by
leasing satellites or using commercial satellites in much the
same way the military now uses commercial airlines to transport
On missile-warning satellites, the Air Force was looking at
launching separate satellites to carry out specific tasks,
rather than one big "bus" that carried a variety of complex
Shelton said the Air Force was also conducting an analysis
of alternatives for a follow-on weather forecasting satellite,
with an eye to making the new system smaller and less expensive.
"We are changing direction," he said. "In terms of the
overall capability it is much the same ... but how we achieve
that capability is going to be fundamentally different."
U.S. government satellite programs saw massive cost overruns
and schedule delays over the past decade, but Air Force
officials have launched a variety of initiatives to reduce the
cost of building and launching satellites.
Those efforts include buying more than one satellite at a
time; work on smaller, cheaper satellites; and a shift to more
fixed-price contracts that reduce the government's liability for
Shelton said the third and fourth satellites built by
Lockheed Martin Corp for the Space Based Infrared System
(SBRIS), which is designed to provide early warning of missile
launches, were running over budget but not as badly as the $438
million cost overrun initially estimated by the Pentagon.
"The signs are positive right now that the reported cost
overrun is not going to be near as significant," Shelton said.
"But we're not out of the woods yet because we've had some
challenges with subvendors."
Shelton blamed the higher costs on problems including a
cracked "harness" that was discovered well into production and a
variety of other issues.
He said Lockheed's Global Positioning System satellites
remained over budget, but costs had stabilized and risen just 7
percent this year, after rising 15 percent, or $70 million, a